XTERRA Couch to Trail – Strength Training for MTB

By Mimi Stockton, 4x 40-44 Division XTERRA World Champ

If XTERRA is an endurance sport,  is strength training really necessary?  The short answer? Yes.

That goes for all three sports, but right now, let’s focus on the importance of building muscles for mountain biking.  This is not to say that muscle building isn’t important for swimming and running – it’s simply that as XTERRA athletes, we spend the most time on the bike. Doing specific strength exercises geared toward biking will give you more bang for your buck.

While off-road triathlon is indeed an endurance activity, mastering technical sections of the mountain bike trails requires high force outputs at relatively slow speeds, something that is best developed through specific mountain bike strength training. You also need to perform repeated intense isometric muscle contractions (think static holds) of your arms, legs and core to absorb shock and vibrations when riding over rough terrain and maneuvering the bike over obstacles. 

If you’ve ever watched mountain bikers jockey for position on incredibly rough terrain, hop, jump, balance and fall for two grueling hours, you will quickly arrive to the conclusion that strength training is a must for XTERRA racing.  During last year’s World Championship race on Maui, the mountain bike portion of the race came down not to whom who could ride the fastest, rather who could carry their mud laden bike the fastest up and down the course.  I remember thinking to myself, “Thank god I did so much strength training this season!” 

For a long time now, the bike industry has tried to make you think that a new bike or a new part would make the biggest difference on the trail. In reality, it is the engine driving the bike that makes the real impact.  Strength training will only make you better. Hitting the gym will increase your force production, which will allow you to spin more efficiently; you’ll be able to navigate technical trails better as you fatigue; and when you fall, your body will be able to absorb the impact as well as a running back playing football. 

Furthermore, strength training will make your bones, ligaments and tendons all stronger—something any mountain biker who’s taken a hard fall can attest is important. Spending time on the saddle takes training precedence, but all you need is 30-45 minutes in the gym (or even at home) two days a week to focus on the legs and upper body and core. 

Pay Attention to Your Core
Do not neglect the core – core strength is key to maintaining balance, improving maneuverability, and combating overall fatigue on the bike.  Next time you’re on your bike, pushing up a hill, take a second to notice how your entire core is engaged.  All those muscles are working to stabilize you and help keep you balanced on the bike up to the top. It’s a simple truth – getting stronger will allow you to ride harder, faster, and longer, adding up to more fun on the trail. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?

Mountain biking today is far more involved than simply road riding on a dirt road. Muscling a 25 pound bike around on a technical trail requires a specialized skillset and specific physical abilities. As such, routines and exercise selection need to reflect this.  Strength training for the mountain biking world has been slow to catch up to the unique and highly physical demands of the sport. Today’s average rider rips up trails that just five or six years ago would have been considered extreme. And today’s extreme rider, well, let’s just say that they continue to defy all reason in their quest to progress. Considering how fast the sport has evolved in such a short period of time it really comes as no surprise that most mountain-bike-specific strength and conditioning programs are slow to catch up.

How to Get Stronger
 First you need to get strong, then you can work on power (i.e. fast strength).  After you’ve built a strength base – which generally takes 6 to 8 weeks for complete beginners – you can begin to work on maximal strength using whole body exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press and chin ups. While MTB is a predominantly single-leg activity (i.e. only one leg is pushing at a time, not both together), double-leg exercises like the squat and deadlift allow you to push heavier weights and hence allow greater strength to be developed.

After the maximal strength phase, you can move into a specific strength phase where you work on single leg exercises and more specific core and upper body exercises. Following on this, you can move into a power training phase using plyometric exercises (e.g. Box Jumps) and modified weightlifting movements.  There’s some evidence to suggest that for those with high training volumes it’s better to replace some endurance training volume with strength training rather than adding extra volume. 

The Best Strength Exercises for Mountain Bikers 

1. The Deadlift – A must for every rider.  The deadlift works on the “hip hinge” movement pattern that separates balanced, efficient movement on the bike from unbalanced, injury causing movement. This primal movement pattern is the basis for your body position, your pedaling power and your ability to corner, bunny hop and jump properly. Without command of this movement pattern and a good deal of strength in it you will struggle to consistently progress as a rider.

Far from just being a lower body exercise, the deadlift works on grip strength, shoulder stability, core strength and the ability to drive from the hips and not from the low back. These are all essential qualities of a good, injury proof rider and no other exercise is as efficient in delivering results as this one. Once you have developed your technique on the regular deadlift, you can progress into the single-leg deadlift.

2. Bulgarian Split Squat – One of the best things about this exercise is that, when done correctly, it serves as both a great uni-lateral leg exercise and a great hip flexor stretch. Prop one leg up on a bench and make sure that you start with your torso completely upright with your shoulders and hips square. Lower yourself under control and make sure that you keep your torso upright and everything square on the way down.

3. Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups/Push-Ups – Most MTB riders are very weak in the upper body. This really takes its toll as the trail gets rougher and the ride gets longer. Having good upper body strength and strength endurance is vital to controlling your bike and maneuvering down the trail. In fact, if more riders worried about getting stronger rather than how to shave a few pounds off their bikes they would be far better served. These upper body exercises are also great for building a strong core.  If pull-ups and chin-ups are too difficult to execute properly, work on push-ups and holding a plank.  

4. Standing Shoulder Press – The standing shoulder press is one of the best exercises available for strengthening the pressing muscles. When done correctly, the standing shoulder press will not only add upper body strength, it will actually help injury proof the core and shoulders as well.

The one thing I can’t stress enough is good technique or form when doing your workouts.  After all, if you are doing them to make improvements to yourself, the last thing you want is a setback from incorrectly doing a move and hurting yourself.  If you’re uncertain how to do a certain move, just ask. People love to feel like experts.

Get Stronger. Get Faster.
Strength and power training are an important addition to the overall training program for mountain bikers. Improvements in strength, explosive power, and lean body mass have been shown to improve the force that can be applied to the pedals which results in greater power during climbing and sprinting.  Increased strength prevents you from fatiguing so easily while climbing and will enable you to control your bike better while hurtling down a hill.  That might just lead to less crashes…which for some, is a pretty good deal!  So grab those weights and start lifting!  New gear might make you ride a bit faster, but weight lifting definitely will!

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little, Jeffrey Kline, and four-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of PRS Fit.  Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.  Read past training articles from PRS Fit at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/couch-to-trail and learn more about their coaching programs at prsfit.com.